It’s probably no surprise to you that we at Stargazer Mercantile have a deep love for all Western art forms. It’s sort of our “thang”! And we take pride in incorporating traditional Western craft into our products. One of my favorites of the traditional arts is horsehair hitching. That’s why I’ve decided to devote an entire blog post to the art of horsehair hitching. Yep, this is my hitching post! (You know I’ve been waiting all week to say that!)
Let’s Get Hitched
The history of hitching horsehair is pretty vague. Many people assume it traveled to the U.S. with Spanish explorers. Since they brought the horses, in the first place, that sounds like a reasonable hypothesis to me! Others say hitching horsehair originated with the cowboy. That’s a definite possibility, as well. A lack of Spanish artifacts would indicate that hitching horsehair could be Western through and through. I always like to imagine how things started. In my imaginings, the art of hitching horsehair started with the words, “I’m bored,” and ended with, the words, “Well, I’ll find you something to do!” With no craft stores around, people used what they had and what they had plenty of was horsehair!
For the uninitiated, hitching horsehair involves making a series of half-hitch knots along a string that has been wrapped around a wooden dowel. To begin the hitching process, hair from a horse’s tail is cleaned and turned into strings known as “pulls”. Fewer hairs in a pull mean a finer finished product. The pulls can then be dyed to create a colorful design. I wonder if this is where the phrase, “jerk a knot in your tail” originated. Hmm…
The hitching itself is not complicated, unless you want to get fancy about it, and then… Whoo-boy! An accomplished horsehair hitcher can create diamonds and spirals and brands. Oh, my! Today, many designs are first sketched out on graph paper before the process of tying a bazillion knots begins. The technique is used to create designs that can be made into belts, hatbands, bridles, quirts and Western decorative items. It is about as time-consuming as milking a chicken, but a lot more rewarding.
Hitching horsehair is a great hobby for people with a lot of time on their hands, since it takes about two hours for an accomplished hitcher to make one inch of hitched horsehair. This brings me to my next point…
Hitched Up and Ready to Go
Who has a lot of time on their hands, besides cowboys? Well. . .prisoners do! Prisoners in some territorial prisons began hitching horsehair, at least as far back as the mid-1800s. It seems this was a skill most often taught to one prisoner by another as a way to pass the time. I’m so thankful it was. Without the work of prisoners, it’s quite likely this beautiful art form would not have made it to the 20th century. In fact, most of the surviving horsehair bridles were created by cowboy prison inmates between the years of 1890 and 1925.
The best-known prisons for creating fine horsehair products were located in Deer Lodge, MT, Rawlings, WY, Yuma, AZ and Walla Walla, WA. In the old days, cowboy prisoners would trade their horsehair products with guards or sell them to affluent ranchers, through the guards.
While the art form has died out in the other prisons, hitching horsehair is still going strong within the Montana state prison system. Inmates continue to pass down the skill to newcomers through unofficial apprenticeships. For more than 30 years, inmates at Deer Lodge have sold finished items to the public at the Montana State Prison Hobby Store in downtown Deer Lodge. During the summers, around 40 tourists a day visit the shop in search of handmade items and a piece of history. In recent years, the store has expanded to allow for additional display space. Three quarters of the selling price goes directly to the inmate, unless he owes restitution or child support, in which case he receives a smaller percentage.
Prisoners buy their own supplies and set their own prices on their finished products. In this way, they are able to keep tabs on the outside economy. If a project doesn’t sell within a year, they can reevaluate their asking price. An estimated 700 inmates from Deer Lodge, Deer Falls, Glendive, Shelby and the Montana Women’s Prison contribute to the store’s inventory, which includes a wide variety of handmade crafts. Since hobbies are a privilege in prison, any infraction could result in the loss of their materials. Many people consider hitching horsehair to be rehabilitation at its finest!
A Slight Hitch
The cost of hitched horsehair items is commensurate with the number of hours it requires to craft them and the scarcity of the skill. Belts can cost several hundred dollars and a vintage headstall and reins in pristine condition can fetch well over $10,000. Collectors are becoming more and more common, making the hard-to-find, hitched horsehair products even more desirable.
From Hair to Eternity
At Stargazer Mercantile, we strive to create beautiful products that you can incorporate in your home’s décor. But, there’s so much more to it than that. We also care about keeping the old art forms alive. Horsehair hitching may be a dying art, but it’s not dead yet! Whenever it is appropriate, we incorporate extraordinary horsehair accessories into our designs, and we purchase them all from the Montana State Prison Hobby Store in Deer Lodge. We’re doing our level best to keep this art form alive, so it can be enjoyed by generations to come! And, have a look-see at some of the items we offer that feature hitched horsehair!
And for a real treat, watch this wonderful interview with contemporary horsehair and silver artists Shoni and Ron Maulding!
Happy Trails, y’all!